Underscoring Amy Chua

The Triple Package vs. The Triple Jewel

Posted Feb 15, 2014

February 15, 2014

Amy Chua seems to be on a quest to outscore everyone.  For my part, I will do my best to underscore her, in every possible way. 

Her previous book, the pseudo-memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, hit a raw nerve.  In one deft move, she tapped into parental insecurities and childrearing controversies – and at the same time proved herself almost psychologically blind to the shadow of her authoritarian parental tactics.  My own Battle Hymn of the Teddy Bear Psychiatrist discussed this book, and I’d have to now note that Professor Su Yeong Kim has definitively debunked Chua’s parental strategies in a wonderful paper that demonstrated that supportive, democratic parents produced significantly higher achievement and less depression and alienation than harsh or tiger parenting parenting styles.  If there’s a synthesis here for producing healthy children, I would have to add Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree as good evidence that the best parental strategy is intimate attunement with who your child is, and who they might become – as opposed to who you want them to be.

Now she and her husband have jointly produced another controversial book that is at work inflaming cultural sensitivities:  The Triple Package:  How Three Unlikely Cultural Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.  They claim their book is “self-help” mediated by sociological and economic insight into why certain ethnic or cultural groups achieve economic success in America.  Their “Triple Package” is insecurity, “superiority”, and impulse control.  The first two combine to produce a “chip on the shoulder” drive, and the last adds to the drive by focusing the person or group on longer-term rewards (a la the famous “marshmallow experiment”).  In a radio interview, they knocked the “self esteem movement” as well.  They would in short err on the side of critique of children (conditional love), somehow magically balanced with “unconditional love”.  It’s a volatile mix at best.  I remain very skeptical, because of Dr. Kim’s study and much research on the authoritarian parenting style.

First, it’s almost trite to say that a lot of successful people alternate between belief and confidence in themselves (due to some success, ethnic pride or to parental praise and love), and alarming insecurity (either because they are invalidated or unloved in some way, through a sense of shame about themselves and who they are, by dint of ethnicity, by way of cultural or parental blame/harshness/excessive comparison to others, the “status collapse” that might come with immigration, or because they feel that if they slack, they will be overtaken).  It’s also trite and true to say that being able to delay gratification pays off – you stay in school longer and you prioritize the long term.

It’s also true that at the extreme, the Triple Package produces Narcissistic Control Freaks.  It’s scary to be around these folks, and perhaps even scarier to be one of them.  Narcissists can vacillate between exalting peaks of grandiosity and dismaying depths of worthlessness.  People who control themselves too much can end up trying to control others as well.  (If this sounds like you, I encourage you to seek help.  If someone you know is like this, perhaps you would like my blog post on dealing with difficult people.)

Chua and Rubenfeld’s psychological analysis leaves me a bit cold.  I understand how they get there, and why, but I disagree first with their cultural analysis and moreover on what to do with it.  “All happy families are alike, all unhappy families unhappy in different ways,” as the saying goes.  So what leads to a happy family and success (and here I would use a much broader version of success than Chua and Rubenfeld)?  I would say it’s the Triple Jewel, not the Triple package:  Family/Community, Education/Work Ethic, and Love/Leadership.  Freud would have called it mastering work and love, an intricate dynamic that always requires effort.

But I think Chua and Rubenfeld are on a cultural project.  That it’s ultimately wrong-headed is irrelevant.  We need to understand what they’re up to.  As an American, and as an Asian American, I think I owe it to both of them to offer my views as a counterpoint to theirs.  Perhaps we can learn from each other.

I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they’re not just doubling down and trying to save face after the disastrous controversy stirred by Chua’s previous book.  That they’re not just digging in deeper to defend themselves and become media personalities.  No, I think I can take them at face value:  they are tapped into genuine insecurity about the future of America, and that they hope to inspire/compel improvement with their perspective. 

They remind me of the T-shirt that says “If you see me running, you better start running.  Because I do not run.”  Amy Chua, I believe, is running hard from a threat.  I have never met her, but I’d like to give her due consideration, that she’s not just running for any personal, self-centered reason, but from what she sees as the decay and fall of the American “ideal” of economic and material success.  She and her husband seem to be saying, with all the niceness they can muster, “get it together, you goats!”  Just what you’d expect from a Tiger Mother and her partner.

However, their focus on ethnic groups could lead to either emulation or misunderstanding, envy and persecution.  It’s also psychologically shallow, giving little comfort to the dark side of their “triple package”:  increased levels of depression and anxiety in Asian Americans, to name one example, or the manifold effects of racism and socioeconomic class.  Their ideal of economic and material success is also highly problematic, to say the least, producing notably disastrous consequences like The Great Recession, for example, and spiritual and emotional poverty.  They do seem to give these subjects some lip-service, perhaps to defuse their critics – but these kinds of alternative views are the whole kit-and-kaboodle to me, not just minor side effects of their proposed remedy.

If we were to choose cultural projects, I would personally go for Robert Reich’s efforts to address inequality (see the book and documentary Inequality for All).  But, Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld, I’m a doctor, not a lawyer.  I am unimpressed by harshness and critique and I am in awe of love.  Even here, tough love doesn't get me; compassion does.

I’d like to leave you with a song by folk musician Cynthia Lin.  “Perfect” from the album “Doppelganger” starts out like this (and you can listen to and buy it here)

I’m obsessed –
Everything perfect.
Perfect grade perfect record
Never late never second…
Always first
First is best.
Always best I’m obsessed
Always best nothing less

That’s pretty much the Triple Package at work.  But then Ms. Lin gets to her version of the Triple Jewel.

Perfect love…
Perfect life…
Where is my perfect love?
Where is my perfect love?
My love should be perfect…
Where is my perfect love?
My love should be everything…

Finally, Lin concludes with realization, and then transcendence.

I have come to expect –
Everything perfect.
Perfect is hard
But I am strong…
And it’s a cold cold place
when you can’t satisfy yourself…
Perfect love…

I have come to accept
Nothing is perfect
Perfect does not exist
Perfect does not exist…
Forgive me.

Transcendence comes in that last moment, in the acceptance of basic human imperfection.  But feeling ever guilty, the singer asks for forgiveness, just for being human.  It’s a bit sad and tragic, ultimately looking for approval and acceptance.  As we all are.  As perhaps Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld are.

Speaking from the heart, we are at our best when we are prepared to forgive ourselves and others for not being perfect.  We’re all in this together, all six billion and counting of us.  I think the Triple Jewel, not the Triple Package, gives us the best guidance for getting through this “mess we made when we were cleaning up the mess we made”, by trying to beat everybody else down and prove our worth.  Everybody may want to rule the world, but love must reign supreme, within and without. 

“Where is my perfect love?”  It’s a question we should all be asking.

Happy Post-Valentine’s Day and Happy Lunar New Year!  (And see below for a bonus feature - the short film"Perfection" by Karen Lin starring Ming-Na!)  Also, here are some links to sociologists debunking the cultural analyses made by Chua and Rubenfeld.

Footnote:  I didn’t cover probably the most harmful and explosive aspect of this book:  their focus on ethnic and cultural groups.  Here are some articles that do this thoroughly.

1. Khin Mai Aung of AALDEF on what Chua gets wrong
2. Daria Roithmayr of Slate points out that it’s the historical endowment, not the Triple package 
3. Sociologists say “Triple Package” ignores real reasons for Jewish success.
4. The Seductive Appeal of Cultural Stereotypes
5. Historian Arissa Oh’s live tweets from reading the book
6. Jennifer Ho on “Why I’m Not Reading Amy Chua’s Book”
7. Why the Triple Package is Dead Wrong
. Why Amy Chua Gets Civil Rights All Wrong

© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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Perfection, dir. Karen Lin, starring Ming-Na